The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index

March 2, 2001

Needed: effort to 'restore the balance of power in Michigan'

Early signs show Bush supporters who their man is listening to

Metamorphosis on course at Ren Cen to make it barrier-free, user-friendly

Time for ABC contractors to 'step up' was 50 years ago

Follies and foibles of blue collar workers featured in new book




Needed: effort to 'restore the balance of power in Michigan'

Michigan Building Trades 43rd Legislative Conference

By Marty Mulcahy

LANSING - Hoping not to lose the smidgen of influence that they have in state government, building trades union reps in Michigan will continue to work behind the scenes with legislators to make sure the agenda of workers is heard in an anti-worker atmosphere.

Building trades delegates from across the state heard that message and a number of others at the 43rd annual Michigan Building Trades Legislative Conference held Feb. 20-21.

The trades and the rest of organized labor were successful in getting members out to vote last November, which helped get Debbie Stabenow elected to the U.S. Senate and helped Al Gore win in Michigan. But - support of the Democrats at the top of the ticket didn't filter down into progress in Lansing, where the Michigan House and Senate still remain in Republican control.

"You went through the last legislative session with remarkable success in how you protect your members," Michigan Senate Minority Leader John Cherry (D-Clio) told delegates. "You did it by educating your members, and by educating legislators."

Organized labor had hoped overturn the 58-52 Republican majority in the Michigan House last Nov. 7 and gain some influence in the state capital, but there was no change in that margin after the election.

But the building trades have been very active in reaching out and influencing Republicans in five to seven "swing" districts that have a heavy concentration of Democratic voters, and have successfully fought off attempts to weaken or repeal prevailing wage and get a few other victories.

Michigan Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Tom Boensch said thanks to some help from friendly legislators on both sides of the aisle, state Republicans "so far haven't been too antagonistic towards us."

"A couple of years ago there was an air of certainty that prevailing wage would be overturned in Michigan," he said. "But we protected prevailing wage, and we even helped increase the funding for MIOSHA inspectors."

As usual in politics, the most important race is the next one. In 2002 in Michigan, up for election will be one U.S. Senate seat, 15 members of Congress, Michigan governor, attorney general, secretary of state, Michigan House seats and a host of county, city and township positions.

"Now more than ever we have our work cut out for us to implement a plan and educate our members," Boensch said. "We need a unified approach and a plan that reaches across the State of Michigan."

Michigan AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Tina Abbott reminded delegates that with labor issues big or small, "an injury to one is an injury to all."

"The entire labor movement supported prevailing wage because it was the right thing to do," she said. "Now Republicans are trying to outlaw the living wage in local communities in Michigan. It may not be one of your issues, but it is an important issue."

Organized labor won't have a chance at stopping Republican attacks unless Democrats restore some balance in Lansing, said Attorney General Jennifer Granholm.

"Let me tell you that the onslaught against organized labor here in Lansing will continue with the present leadership," said state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm. "The representation we're seeing amounts to death by 1,000 cuts. They're cutting away at prevailing wage, collective bargaining, and the efforts continue to make Michigan a right-to-work state.

"There are little ways an attorney general can help you out, but the only way you're going to see any change is to restore the balance of power in Michigan."

"YOUR AGENDA is my agenda," Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm told Michigan Building Trades Council delegates.


Early signs show Bush supporters who their man is listening to

By Patrick Devlin
Greater Detroit Building Trades Council

About 67 percent of Michigan's union voters voted for Al Gore in the Nov. 7 election, a historically high percentage which impressed pundits across the country, and was a model for how organized labor was able to get out the vote on Election Day.

But in doing the math, I figure that means nearly a third of Michigan's union voters wanted to see Republican George W. Bush in office.

I was one of the 67 percent who voted for Al Gore - he wasn't the perfect candidate, but when it comes to pocketbook issues, I am convinced he was the best choice for working people.

As for President Bush - he's been in office for six weeks now, and it's becoming increasingly clear just what kind of president we have in office. His actions and the Executive Orders he has signed - which were some of the very first things he had on his agenda - show you something about his priorities and who has his ear.

If you are a union member who voted for President Bush, here's what your candidate has been up to:

  • On Feb. 16, Bush revoked an Executive Order issued by President Clinton that required contractors on many federally funded projects to work under a union-only project labor agreement. A White House official said Bush believes unionized and nonunion contractors should compete for federal projects and that the change could save taxpayers money.
    The order came despite a 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1993 that upheld the validity of PLAs.

Competition is fine - as long as the playing field is level. Bush is giving his friends in the Associated Builders and Contractors a chance to bid on more projects, and now union contractors will have to bid for jobs against lower-paying competition, all sanctioned by your president.

  • If you voted for President Bush to get the benefit of a big tax break, it helps if you're making more than $300,000 a year. If you are in that top one percent of wage earners, Bush's plan will save you $45,000 in taxes a year.

But if you're in the lowest 40 percent of wage earners, you will get about a four percent tax break. For poor people, a typical family of four would get no tax break at all until their income rises above $25,867.

If you're part of a couple earning $50,000 a year, you would see a tax reduction of $1,975.

  • Bush's first choice for secretary at the Labor Department, Linda Chavez, was vehemently opposed by organized labor. She had no interest in furthering the interests of labor, and the person in charge of representing the interests of America's workforce was quoted as saying, "union members are hardly representative of the American working public."

Chavez doesn't support prevailing wage, doesn't support project labor agreements, and dismissed Al Gore's proposals for prescription drug benefits for the elderly as "a new welfare state for the middle class."

She was ultimately displaced from the nomination process because of a flap over her housing an illegal immigrant.

  • At the request of his supporters in the business community, Bush has also suspended rules that would have saved the lives and limbs of workers. One of his first acts was to suspend the new federal steel erection safety standard, which was the product of years of bi-partisan work and was estimated to save 30 lives and prevent 1,142 injuries per year.

The new ergonomics standard, which doesn't cover the construction industry but would help improve the working lives of hundreds of thousands of workers, may never see the light of day thanks to Bush.

Bush has plenty of time left in his term of office to do some good for the health, welfare and pocketbooks of the nation's working people - and that may well happen. But early signs indicate that his friends in big business community have his attention a lot more than working people do.



Metamorphosis on course at Ren Cen to make it barrier-free, user-friendly

By Marty Mulcahy

It may take an additional $500 million to get it right, but the Renaissance Center is finally becoming the building that everyone hoped it would be when it opened in 1977.

Widely criticized over the years for its circular, maze-like corridors, the fortress-like berms in front of the entrance, and a design which separated it from the rest of Downtown Detroit, the Ren Cen has been undergoing major reconstructive surgery by Turner Construction, numerous subcontractors and the building trades.

Between 500 and 600 Hardhats are currently on the project, and many more helped build the original Ren Cen at a time when construction jobs were relatively scarce.

"It was a great job, there were a lot of good guys and a lot of work," said Al Friend, a Local 25 iron worker who worked on all six Ren Cen towers. He said erecting the Westin Hotel, a skyscraper that is still the tallest building in Michigan didn't have much of an effect on him at the time.

"You know, after we did the 39-story towers, there's not that much difference in height when you get to 70, they're all pretty high," Friend said.

On Oct. 1, 1996 General Motors saw a good opportunity in the skyscrapers, and purchased the Renaissance Center for $75 million to make it its global headquarters and announced plans to relocate 9,000 staff to the towers.

Besides the Mackinac Bridge, the Ren Cen is perhaps Michigan's most visible structure. Groundbreaking took place on May 22, 1973 for the project's first phase, the 73-story, 1,500-room Westin Hotel (now a Marriot) surrounded by four 39-story office buildings, all owned by Ford Motor Land Development.

That phase was dedicated on April 15, 1977, and two years later, work began on the shorter Towers 500 and 600, which were completed in 1981. All told, the 5.5 million square-foot center sits on 14 acres and cost $350 million to build.

The design of the Renaissance Center, by architect John Portman, literally left office workers walking in circles, and hotel guests and other visitors were similarly befuddled. The first major facelift of the RenCen came in 1985, when a new Jefferson Ave. entrance was built and the hotel lobby was remodeled. The re-design didn't help too much.

"The RenCen was less than 10 years old when its former owners undertook a $27 million renovation in an effort to breathe life into the bunker," said architectural writer Kevin Piotrowski. "All that project accomplished was to show that it would take several million more to make the building so much as navigable, let alone inviting. But with almost 20 times as much money and what appears to be genuine commitment to integrating its headquarters with its hometown, (GM's) plans suggests there may yet be hope for Portman's most spectacular failure."

Yeesh. That may be a little strong, but one of the world's largest companies saw a great future for the complex, although it needed some work. When they bought the center, Matthew Cullen, general manager of GM's Enterprise Activities Group, said the hotel alone "has been undercapitalized for years, and the wear and tear shows."

As a result, Turner, its subcontractors and the trades have been tearing up virtually the entire interior and starting over atop the concrete and steel skeleton.

Here are a few features in the "new" Ren Cen:

  • Unlike the old Ren Cen, the new GM headquarters building will have a defined front door and back door. The notorious 30-foot-tall concrete berms that house the center's heating and cooling systems - and act as a barrier to the rest of downtown - will be a thing of the past. The mechanical systems are being relocated.
  • The "back door" will be the Winter Garden - the most significant architectural change to the complex. The five-story glass-enclosed atrium will open up the Ren Cen to views of the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario. It will include flowers, trees, stores and restaurants. Outside, the Winter Garden will open up into a riverfront promenade, featuring a tree-lined walkway that may someday extend from the Ambassador Bridge to the Belle Isle Bridge. "The goal," GM says, "is to bring natural light into the Ren Cen's interior retail spaces that now operate in a bunker-like environment."
  • A new "circulation ring," - a 12-foot wide glass walkway suspended at the second level - is expected to "help solve what has been the most long-standing problem at the Ren Cen - finding one's way around the labyrinthian hallways," said GM. Ramps vector off at the entrance of each of the four office towers.
  • A year ago, The Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center hotel began the first phase of a $100 million, three-year renovation. Entire groups of floors were emptied so renovations could take place without disturbing guests. The hotel's elevators have been modernized and reconditioned to be "smarter," with faster dispatch and delivery.

More than 1,300 rooms are slated to be refurbished. Rooms will include a new floor plan, heating and cooling system, carpeting, bathtubs, modern plumbing fixtures, updated furniture, improved lighting and fresh wall coverings. Guestroom hallways will also undergo a complete makeover.

Completion is expected in spring of 2002.

"It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since I worked there," said Local 98 plumber Jim Petts, who installed sinks, piping and plumbing fixtures from the bottom to the top of the hotel. "It was definitely a good job for plumbing, there was a lot of work to be done. I look back on it now and it really was a landmark job. I guess what I really remember is the people. There were a lot of good people on that job."

ERECTING STEEL in what will be "the Winter Garden" area of the GM Renaissance Center are Iron Workers Local 25 members Josh Hamric, Jim Marion, Mike Kibat and Steve Poisson.

AN ARTIST'S RENDITION of the Winter Garden behind the Renaissance Center and boardwalk that will be built next to the Detroit River. Underutilized for years, the area between the Detroit River and the Renaissance Center will undergo a dramatic change in the next few years.


Time for ABC contractors to 'step up' was 50 years ago

Tradesman Viewpoint

The Saturday Night Live Church Lady from years past may have put it this way: "Some of us only care about workers when it's conveenient!"

The Associated Builders and Contractors - who have never found a good reason to pay workers a fair wage in their history - have apparently found religion on the matter.

Henry G. Kelly, the new national president of the anti-union ABC, told the Construction Labor Report that recognizing the value of skilled craftworkers will now be a priority of the contractors group. "We need to be paying them a competitive wage and we need to offer them a competitive benefit package," he said.

The reason: "There are just not as many people available for the industry as there once were," said Kelly. He added, "it's time for contractors to step up and change the image of this industry."

Let's try to understand the ABC's logic, first of all by pointing out some commonly accepted existing conditions in the construction industry. There's little argument that the construction industry is a dangerous, dirty and cyclical industry that doesn't pay well compared to manufacturing jobs.

There is also a skilled worker shortage in construction, in good part because of those aforementioned reasons, but also because until the last few years, pay levels haven't even kept up with inflation.

But now that there's a perceived worker shortage, the ABC has been given a swift kick in the pants and is suggesting their contractors should start treating their workers better. The organization that has historically had laughable training programs, and has been unmatched in its zeal to hold down worker wages and benefits in favor of profits, is suddenly doing an about-face so that it can help improve its member-contractors' short-term bottom line.

In the long-term, if the ABC were truly concerned about the well-being of their workforce, they would join the thousands of union contractors in the nation, who seek out union training programs and initiate collective bargaining agreements with their workers - and still make a profit.

Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen. A leopard can't change his spots.



Follies and foibles of blue collar workers featured in new book

When it comes to jokes and funny stories, most of us hear them, have a laugh, maybe pass them along once or twice, and then forget them.

Not Daren Peel. A plumber for most of his adult life, Peel has compiled stories that he has heard over the years and has put them into a book called The Blue Collar Follies, an easy read with true, humorous anecdotes about life on the job.

"If people can relate to these stories, and have a laugh or two, the book will have done what I want it to do," Peel said.

More than a decade ago, the 34-year-old Plumbers Local 98 member realized what most construction workers realize - that the business they're in seems to breed a lot of interesting personalities who have stories to tell, or through their actions, create stories. Peel began jotting down notes about the anecdotes he considered humorous, with the intention of putting them into a book someday. The book includes people from all walks of life.

Someday came a couple of years ago, when Peel repaired a toilet belonging to Tex Ragsdale, a comedy writer for Tim Allen. They got to talking, and Peel realized he found a professional who could help put his book together. Then illustrator B.K. Taylor agreed to do illustrations for the book, and the project came together.

Peel formed Sand River Publishing, and hired a union printer to produce 2,500 copies of the book, which he is selling for $10 apiece. Only the names, he said, have been changed to protect the guilty - or the easily embarrassed.

Peel is contributing 10 percent of his profits to children's charities. He said in the book's introduction, "I want to share with everyone the funny side of my life and the lives of people just like me, the blue-collar, working class people. This book is for them."

He is selling his book through word-of-mouth marketing, and has done book signings at Borders Books. Blue Collar Follies is only available for purchase through Peel's website,



Record reserve for jobless money…
Jobless building trades workers in Michigan - and there are a significant number of you out there - will no doubt be delighted to hear that the trust fund that holds money to pay state unemployment benefits ended 2000 with a record-high $3.067 billion cash reserve.

The reserve grew by nearly 12 percent from 1999 to 2000. "The reserve is especially impressive when you realize that it accumulated in the face of six straight years of tax cuts authorized by Governor Engler, which have saved Michigan employers over $1 billion in unemployment taxes," said Jack Wheatley, director of the state's Unemployment Agency.

Of course, no where in the press release touting the massive cash reserve is there any word about how the state's unemployed workers have contributed to the surplus. In April 1996, Engler and state Republicans voted to put a halt to any increases in unemployment benefits, capping benefits at $300 per week. That $300 maximum hasn't changed since 1996, and Republicans made sure there were no provisions in the law for that amount to increase, even for inflation.

Furthermore, Engler and the Republican lawmakers in 1996 changed state law so that claimants who file and qualify for unemployment benefits will receive 67 percent of their after-tax earnings in benefits, compared to 70 percent under the old law. The $300 cap in benefits still applies to all workers, no matter their income level when they were laid off.

"The unemployment trust fund is very sound and well prepared, regardless of economic conditions, to continue unemployment benefit payments without borrowing federal funds," Wheatley said.

…But $3.067 billion in cash is not enough
There was more news, both good and bad, concerning the state's Unemployment Agency revealed at the Michigan Building Trades Legislative Conference.

A presentation by two Michigan Unemployment Agency representatives at the conference focused on how well the state's new wage-record system is working. They reported that a spike in the number of jobless claims that came in late last year was handled flawlessly, and jobless workers received their benefit checks in a timely manner thanks to the newly implemented Wage-Record system.

Under its old system, the Unemployment Agency sent requests for wage information to employers every time one of their employees filed an unemployment claim. On Oct. 1, 2000, the agency scrapped that time-consuming system, and replaced it with a program of using quarterly wage information submitted by employers to establish the amount of unemployment benefits jobless workers may receive, if they are otherwise eligible.

Representatives from the state Unemployment Agency, labor and management helped implement the system, which is supposed to be faster and "benefit neutral," meaning some claimants get more, some will get less, but the state pays out about the same in jobless benefits every year.

Which leads us to the bad news - which is essentially an extension of the $300 annual cap on benefits that we allude to in the article above. The Unemployment Agency reps present at the meeting told delegates that if state legislators did not impose the $300 cap on jobless benefits in 1996, the state's jobless workers would be eligible to receive a benefit maximum of just over $400 per week, and Michigan would rank 9th among all states in maximum benefits paid out, instead of 29th.

The Republicans who control our state government could increase that $300 maximum benefit, but the Unemployment Fund is a little cash-starved: the $3.067 billion cash reserve is apparently not enough.


The Building Tradesman Current Issue | Back Issues Index